April 30, 2014 8:50 pm

Halifax researchers hope MicroResearch empowers doctors an ocean away

The microresearch program is what brought Dr. Isha Grant of Kampala, Uganda to Halifax.

Julia Wong/Global News

HALIFAX – Nova Scotia doctors who routinely save lives here are now lending a hand in research to help save lives on the other side of the Atlantic.

MicroResearch is a program that are created five years ago as a joint partnership between Dalhousie University and the IWK, and it focuses on Eastern Africa.

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“What we do is help researchers in Africa that are healthcare workers answer their own questions,” said Dr. Noni MacDonald, a professor of pediatrics at Dalhousie University with a clinical appointment in Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the IWK.

“We train them how to do research. We give them support with coaching while they’re developing their proposals and then we help them get international peer reviews for their proposals.”

Candidates who pass those stages receive a $2,000 grant to conduct their project, which also gets published as an external abstract upon completion.

MacDonald likens the concept to microfinance, which provides business loans to people in developing countries with the broader goal of helping lift them out of poverty.

She said microresearch gives researchers in Eastern Africa the opportunity to take the lead on a project, not only giving them the freedom to explore an area of interest but the confidence to pursue healthcare research.

“[It's] become a culture of inquiry where people actually ask questions about ‘Is this the best way of doing it?’, ‘How can I do this better?’ and ‘How can I solve this problem?’,” she said.

“This is about local people who understand the local context asking the questions that are relevant for them and finding solutions that are going to fit their problem.”

The microresearch program is what brought Dr. Isha Grant of Kampala, Uganda to Halifax. She is heading up a study on neo-natal death in rural communities in Uganda.

“We wanted to find out what were the causes of these newborn deaths,” she said.

Her research showed 30 per cent of newborn deaths occurred in the first week of life.

After interviewing 101 mothers who had lost at least one baby in the previous year, the physician found a multitude of reasons, though one stuck out in particular.

“The most common cause attributed to death within this first week of life was called sepsis,” Grant said. Sepsis is described as a severe reaction to an infection.

Grant explained childbirth in Uganda is a social event with many traditional practices, one of which involves putting traditional herbs, ash powder and cow dung on a baby’s umbilical cord.

“That practice of putting different kinds of herbs into the cord introduces infection and leads to cord sepsis. We found it actually leads to most of the deaths in our study,” she said.

Grant plans to go back to the rural communities involved in her project and speak with birth attendants about the traditions that are hurting the newborn babies.

“Try to make them understand that some of their practices they have are really harmful, maybe come up with alternative [ways] to prevent deaths in their communities.”

She is quick to say that the project would not have been feasible without the support, coaching and mentorship from her Halifax counterparts.

“Microresearch gave me the skills and the capacity to ask simple questions, which have simple solutions within a limited setting, limited funding,” she said.

Grant is now interested in other research projects in rural Uganda, including looking at malnutrition in children under the age of five.

Her curiosity is an example of what microresearch on the other side of the world can do, MacDonald said.

MacDonald said that though eastern Africa is on the other side of the Atlantic, it is an area that Nova Scotians should care about.

“If we care about tomorrow’s world, globally we need to do something about that. For the last decade or so, we’ve thrown money at those problems and it hasn’t fixed all of them. We haven’t given the people the tools to solve the problems themselves,” she said.

“They decide what it is they want to work on. Then they do it and carry it out. These are projects that are going to benefit their community when they’re finished,” MacDonald said.

Over the past five years, more than 390 healthcare workers have gone through the microresearch program, coming from destinations as far away as Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.

Seven teams have finished their project while another 25 are still in development.

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